Robert May, Baron May of Oxford

Last updated

The Lord May of Oxford

59th President of the Royal Society
In office
Preceded by Aaron Klug
Succeeded by Martin Rees
Personal details
Robert McCredie May

(1936-01-08)8 January 1936 [1]
Sydney, New South Wales, Australia
Died28 April 2020(2020-04-28) (aged 84)
Oxford, Oxfordshire, England
Alma mater University of Sydney
Known for Logistic map, [2] stability-complexity studies [3]
Judith Feiner
(m. 1962)
Scientific career
Fields Theoretical ecology
Institutions Imperial College London
University of Oxford
Harvard University
Thesis Investigations towards an understanding of superconductivity  (1959)
Doctoral students
Other notable students Martin Nowak (postdoc) [7]

Robert McCredie May, Baron May of Oxford, OM , AC , FRS , FAA , FTSE , FRSN , HonFAIB (8 January 1936 – 28 April 2020) was an Australian scientist who was Chief Scientific Adviser to the UK Government, President of the Royal Society, [8] and a professor at the University of Sydney and Princeton University. He held joint professorships at the University of Oxford and Imperial College London. He was also a crossbench member of the House of Lords from 2001 until his retirement in 2017.


May was a Fellow of Merton College, Oxford, and an appointed member of the council of the British Science Association. He was also a member of the advisory council for the Campaign for Science and Engineering. [9]

Early life and education

May was born in Sydney on 8 January 1936, to lawyer [10] Henry Wilkinson May and Kathleen Mitchell (née McCredie), [11] [12] who divorced when he was seven years old. [1] [13] His father was of prosperous middle-class Northern Irish origin, and his mother was the daughter of a Scottish engineer. [14] May was educated at Sydney Boys High School. [1] He then attended the University of Sydney, where he studied chemical engineering and theoretical physics (BSc 1956) and received a PhD in theoretical physics in 1959. [15] He was a patron of the Sydney High School Old Boys Union. [16]

Career and research


The logistic map, pictured here, was a seminal discovery by May that demonstrated how even a simple equation could result in chaos. Logistic map.gif
The logistic map, pictured here, was a seminal discovery by May that demonstrated how even a simple equation could result in chaos.

Early in his career, May developed an interest in animal population dynamics and the relationship between complexity and stability in natural communities. [17] [18] He was able to make major advances in the field of population biology through the application of mathematical techniques. His work played a key role in the development of theoretical ecology through the 1970s and 1980s. He also applied these tools to the study of disease and to the study of biodiversity.

May was Gordon MacKay Lecturer in Applied Mathematics at Harvard University (1959–61) and returned to the University of Sydney (1962) as senior lecturer, reader, and professor (1969–72) in theoretical physics. From 1973 until 1988, he was Class of 1977 Professor of Zoology at Princeton University, serving as chairman of the University Research Board 197788. From 1988 until 1995, he held a Royal Society Research Professorship jointly at Imperial College London and the University of Oxford, where he became a fellow of Merton College and a Master of Arts.[ when? ] He was Chief Scientific Adviser to HM Government and head of the Office of Science and Technology (1995–2000), and president of the Royal Society (2000–2005). [19]

Public life

May held subsidiary appointments as executive trustee of the Nuffield Foundation, member of the board of the United Kingdom Sports Institute, foundation trustee of the Gates Trust (University of Cambridge), chairman of the board of trustees of the Natural History Museum, trustee of the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, independent member of the Joint Nature Conservation Committee, trustee of World Wildlife Fund-UK, president of the British Ecological Society, and member of the Committee on Climate Change.

In 1996, May asked Ig Nobel to stop awarding prizes to British scientists because this might lead the public to treat worthwhile research less seriously (see Criticism of Ig Nobel).

Climate change co-operation

Although an atheist since age 11, May stated that religion may help society deal with climate change. While referring to what he believed to be a rigid structure of fundamentalist religion, he stated that the co-operational aspects of non-fundamentalist religion may in fact help with climate change. When asked if religious leaders should be doing more to persuade people to combat climate change, he stated that it was absolutely necessary. [20]

Awards and honours

May was appointed Knight Bachelor in 1996, [21] and a Companion of the Order of Australia in 1998. In 2001, on the recommendation of the House of Lords Appointments Commission, he was created a life peer. He was one of the first fifteen peers to be elevated in this manner. After his initial preference for "Baron May of Woollahra" failed an objection from the Protocol Office of the Australian Prime Minister's Department, he chose the style and title Baron May of Oxford, of Oxford in the County of Oxfordshire. [22] [23] He was made a member of the Order of Merit in 2002. [24]

He was elected to the Fellowship of the Royal Society in 1979, a Corresponding Fellow of the Australian Academy of Science in 1991, a Foreign Member of the United States National Academy of Sciences in 1992, to the Academia Europaea in 1994 and Fellow of the Royal Society of New South Wales in 2010. [25] In 2005, he was appointed an Honorary Fellow of the Royal Academy of Engineering. [4] In 2009 Lord May became only the 7th ever Honorary Fellow of the Australian Institute of Building (HonFAIB). [26] He received honorary degrees from universities including Uppsala [27] (1990), Yale (1993), Sydney (1995), Princeton (1996), and the Eidgenössische Technische Hochschule Zürich (2003). He was awarded the Weldon Memorial Prize by the University of Oxford (1980), an Award by the MacArthur Foundation (1984), the Medal of the Linnean Society of London (1991), the Marsh Christian Prize (1992), the Frink Medal by the Zoological Society of London (1995), the Crafoord Prize (1996), the Balzan Prize (1998) for Biodiversity and the Copley Medal by the Royal Society (2007) and the Lord Lewis Prize by the Royal Society of Chemistry (2008).

Personal life

During his postdoctoral research at the Division of Engineering and Applied Physics at Harvard University as Gordon MacKay Lecturer in Applied Mathematics, between 1959 and 1961, May met his wife, Judith Feiner, [1] a native of Manhattan. [28] [29] The Mays had a daughter, Naomi. [28]

May died at a nursing home in Oxford of pneumonia complicated by Alzheimer's disease on 28 April 2020, aged 84. [30] [31]

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  1. 1 2 3 4 5 "MAY OF OXFORD, Baron". Who's Who . 2017 (online Oxford University Press  ed.). A & C Black, an imprint of Bloomsbury Publishing plc.(subscription or UK public library membership required)(subscription required)
  2. Gravel, Dominique; Massol, François; Leibold, Mathew A. (2016). "Stability and complexity in model meta-ecosystems". Nature Communications. 7: 12457. Bibcode:2016NatCo...712457G. doi:10.1038/ncomms12457. PMC   4999499 . PMID   27555100.
  3. May, Robert M. (18 August 1972). "Will a Large Complex System be Stable?". Nature. 238 (5364): 413–414. Bibcode:1972Natur.238..413M. doi:10.1038/238413a0. PMID   4559589. S2CID   4262204.
  4. 1 2 "List of Fellows". Royal Academy of Engineering.
  5. Sugihara, George; May, Robert (1990). "Nonlinear forecasting as a way of distinguishing chaos from measurement error in time series". Nature. 344 (6268): 734–741. Bibcode:1990Natur.344..734S. doi:10.1038/344734a0. PMID   2330029. S2CID   4370167.
  6. Sugihara, George; May, Robert; Ye, Hao; Hsieh, Chih-hao; Deyle, Ethan; Fogarty, Michael; Munch, Stephan (2012). "Detecting Causality in Complex Ecosystems". Science. 338 (6106): 496–500. Bibcode:2012Sci...338..496S. doi:10.1126/science.1227079. PMID   22997134. S2CID   19749064.
  7. Tilman, D.; May, R. M.; Lehman, C. L.; Nowak, M. A. (1994). "Habitat destruction and the extinction debt". Nature . 371 (6492): 65. Bibcode:1994Natur.371...65T. doi:10.1038/371065a0. S2CID   4308409.
  8. Bradbury, Jane (2000). "Sir Robert May: A new face at the Royal Society". The Lancet . 356 (9227): 406–736. doi:10.1016/S0140-6736(05)73556-X. PMID   10972381. S2CID   34829440.
  9. "Advisory Council of the Campaign for Science and Engineering" . Retrieved 11 February 2011.
  10. "Robert May (1936 - 2020)".
  11. Debrett's Peerage and Baronetage, 148th edition, ed. Charles Kidd, Debrett's Peerage Ltd, 2011, p. 1058
  12. Dod's Parliamentary Companion, Dod's Parliamentary Companion Ltd, ed. Helen Haxell, 2009, p. 766
  13. Ferry, Georgina (29 April 2020). "Lord May of Oxford obituary" via
  14. "Lord Robert May, physicist and ecologist | Australian Academy of Science".
  15. May, Robert McCredie (1959). Investigations towards an understanding of superconductivity. (PhD thesis). University of Sydney. OCLC   221204076.
  16. "Patrons". 9 February 2008.
  17. May, Robert M. (1976). "Simple mathematical models with very complicated dynamics". Nature . 261 (5560): 459–467. Bibcode:1976Natur.261..459M. doi:10.1038/261459a0. hdl: 10338.dmlcz/104555 . PMID   934280. S2CID   2243371.
  18. Robert May, Baron May of Oxford publications indexed by Google Scholar OOjs UI icon edit-ltr-progressive.svg
  19. Krebs, Lord (John); Hassell, Michael; Godfray, Sir Charles (2021). "Lord Robert May of Oxford OM. 8 January 1936—28 April 2020". Biographical Memoirs of Fellows of the Royal Society. 71.
  20. Richard Alleyne, "Maybe religion is the answer" claims-atheist-scientist, The Daily Telegraph, 7 September 2009]
  21. "No. 54255". The London Gazette (Supplement). 30 December 1995. p. 2.
  22. "No. 56282". The London Gazette . 23 July 2001. p. 8681.
  23. Annabel Crabb, Good Lord, he said what?, The Sunday Age , 20 November 2005
  24. "No. 56746". The London Gazette . 8 November 2002. p. 13557.
  25. "Fellows of RSNSW". RSNSW. Retrieved 25 June 2012.
  26. The first six honorary fellows of the Australian Institute of Building (HonFAIB) are: HRH Prince Philip, Sir Eric Neil AC CVO, Janet Holmes a'Court AC, James Service AO, Sir Laurence Street AC KCMG QC, and Sir John Holland AC [vale]. Subsequent appointments are Professor Marie Bashir AC CVO and Dr Kenneth Michael AC. "Life and Honorary Fellows". Australian Institute of Building . Retrieved 21 April 2014.
  27. Naylor, David. "Honorary doctorates - Uppsala University, Sweden".
  28. 1 2 "Lord Robert May". Australian Academy of Science.
  29. May, Robert McCredie (2001) Stability and Complexity in Model Ecosystems, Princeton University Press ISBN   978-0-691-08861-7
  30. "Robert May, former UK chief scientist and chaos theory pioneer, dies aged 84". The Guardian. 29 April 2020. Retrieved 29 April 2020.
  31. "Robert May, an Uncontainable 'Big Picture' Scientist, Dies at 84". The New York Times . 12 May 2020. Retrieved 12 May 2020.

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Government offices
Preceded by
Sir William Stewart
Chief Scientific Adviser to the UK Government
Succeeded by
Sir David King
Professional and academic associations
Preceded by
Aaron Klug
59th President of the Royal Society
Succeeded by
Martin Rees